UK Politics

Work longer to keep spare room, says pensions minister

Steve Webb
Image caption Steve Webb said £30m was available to councils to help with the most vulnerable cases

People facing a cut in housing benefit because they have a spare room in their council home could work more hours to keep it, the pension minister has said.

Lib Dem Steve Webb said about 100,000 council and social housing tenants with jobs could be hit by the new rules.

From April families deemed to have too much living space will get less benefit - a change dubbed the "bedroom tax".

He told the BBC they could make up the shortfall by working longer - saying three hours a week would cover it.

Under the government's so-called "size criteria", families will be assessed for the number of bedrooms they actually need.

The change affects council tenants, and those renting from housing associations, of working age who receive housing benefit.

It does not affect claimants who rent in the private sector.

Help for vulnerable

Tenants in social housing will have their benefit reduced by 14% if they have a spare bedroom or 25% if they have two or more extra rooms.

The Liberal Democrat minister was asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about the example of a divorced father who has a spare bedroom for his visiting children, but will lose out under the new arrangements.

Mr Webb said: "Many of the people we are talking about - over 100,000 - are in work. So they could, for example, work a bit more and simply pay the shortfall.

"We're talking on average £14 or £15 a week. So three hours at the minimum wage would pay the shortfall then he can keep the spare bedroom and have someone to stay.

"The issue of an extra shift, a bit of overtime, to pay that shortfall, if it really matters to have that spare room - and I entirely understand that it will, for a family in that situation - making up the shortfall through working extra hours will be one of the options. But there may be others."

The government has estimated the change will affect around 660,000 housing benefit claimants.

Mr Webb said a fund of £30m was available to local authorities to help with the most vulnerable cases, particularly disabled people who live in specially adapted homes.

He said there were nearly a million "spare" bedrooms being paid for by housing benefit and the changes the government was implementing would help cut the cost of the housing benefit bill.

"But crucially," he added, "we'll be making better use of the vitally important low-rent housing that we have in the country."

'It's about fairness'

Labour MP Michael McCann, an aide to shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, said: "Steve Webb must have missed the last two years where his government drove the British economy into the ground.

"He blithely tells those hit by the bedroom tax to work extra hours but two thirds are disabled and there are still more than 5 people chasing every job - extra shifts aren't easy to come by. They are staggeringly out of touch."

During Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron defended the policy saying it was about fairness between those who claim housing benefit and live in the private rental sector and those who live in social housing.

"If you are in private housing and do get housing benefit you don't get money for an extra room," he said.

"So there's a basic argument of fairness: why should we be doing more for people in social housing on housing benefit than people in private housing on housing benefit?"

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